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Associated Press

NORFOLK, Va. -- Minnesota survived nearly six weeks without Lindsay Whalen.

Although the times were difficult as Whalen sat out with two broken bones in her shooting hand, coach Pam Borton knows playing without her star guard helped the Golden Gophers make program history.

"They said when Lindsay broke her hand that things happen for a reason," Borton said. "I was waiting 5 1/2 weeks to figure out what that reason was. Now, I've figured it out, and it's made us a better team."

Minnesota (25-8) certainly is one of the best in the land these days, after beating top-seeded Duke 82-75 Tuesday night in the Mideast Regional final to advance to its first Final Four.

The seventh-seeded Gophers -- who play two-time defending national champion Connecticut on Sunday -- are the third-highest seed to advance to a women's Final Four, and Borton said the injury to Whalen made it all possible.

"We've had some people on this team really step up and produce big for us on both ends of the floor," Borton said. "I think Janel McCarville came into herself, Shannon Schonrock became a better leader and Shannon Bolden and Kadidja Andersson became more of an offensive threat for us.

"They're still playing the same roles, and now with Lindsay back in the lineup, it's made us a better team," she said.

Minnesota went 3-4 without Whalen but her return has sparked the Gophers. And they were never better than Tuesday night.

They got huge performances from Whalen and McCarville and key contributions from most everyone else in ending Duke's bid for a third straight Final Four berth.

Whalen was the catalyst for a full-throttle offense and finished with 27 points, while McCarville was a force inside, scoring 20 and grabbing 18 rebounds.

Even more than numbers, both brought attitude that proved critical when Duke tried to take over the game.

"Lindsay was the ring leader in the timeouts," Borton said. "You could just tell she was not going to let her team lose this game."

After a 10-2 run by Duke made it 44-42 in the second half, Whalen was sneering on the left wing when she suddenly whipped a no-look pass to McCarville under the basket, her layup doubling the margin.

And later, after Duke closed to 57-55 with 8:19 left, Whalen drove down the lane, spinning away from a defender for an easy layup, the whirling dervish move drawing "oohs" and "aahs" from the sellout crowd.

And finally, there was McCarville, with her back to the basket, dropping a perfect feed to a streaking Whalen behind her for a layup.

McCarville had a team-high six assists.

But there were many key players.

Bolden, who will guard UConn star Diana Taurasi, held three-time All-American Alana Beard to 10 points, and scored 10 herself, including a 3-pointer after Duke tied it at 59.

Andersson scored 17, often filling in for the foul-plagued McCarville down low and hitting key shots against Duke's taller defenders. Minnesota will need the same all-around intensity if the Gophers hope to have a chance against UConn, one of the most dominant teams in women's college basketball.

"Would we be sitting here if Lindsay didn't break her hand? I don't know," Borton said. "I don't know if other kids on the team would've stepped up and proved their roles."

With few expectations from almost everyone because of the way they ended the season, the Gophers were supposed to be long since out of the NCAA field.

But as the final seconds ticked off against Duke, they rejoiced, novices in their fourth NCAA tournament appearance, but loving it all.

"Coach has always talked about how we have to act like we've been there before and walk with a lot of class," McCarville said. "Well, we ain't never been there before. We finally got a chance to celebrate."

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